Flying Fishby Sherry Devlin
Missoulian - September 17, 2000
Forest hearing disrupted; Idaho protester throws salmon at lawmaker
Shouting "you are the greatest threat to the forest," a 20-year-old Moscow, Idaho, man threw rotting salmon on U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage at the start of a congressional field hearing in Missoula on Saturday morning.
The congresswoman, a Republican from Idaho, was not injured in the attack, but the hearing was recessed for an hour while she cleaned salmon flakes from her hair and jacket shoulders.
Later, she joked that she found it amusing that an environmentalist would pelt her with the controversial fish. "I guess salmon must not be endangered anymore," she said.
The man, who told police his name was Randall Mark, was charged with felony assault, disorderly conduct and obstructing a police officer and was booked into the Missoula County Detention Facility on $16,000 bond.
Mark was sitting alone, near the front of the Urey Underground Lecture Hall at the University of Montana, when Chenoweth-Hage opened the hearing of her House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
The intent was to discuss the summer's wildfires - their causes, suppression and rehabilitation.
Already the target of a protest rally outside the lecture hall, Chenoweth-Hage was three sentences into her prepared opening remarks when Mark rushed down the aisle, lunging at the congresswoman and throwing what appeared to be a small pie made of canned salmon.
Chenoweth-Hage was reading her statement and did not see the man until people in the audience shouted "whoa" and "no." She ducked. Some of the salmon landed in her hair and shoulders. Most hit the wall and floor behind the table, where it stayed - stinking - for the next six hours as Chenoweth-Hage and Rep. Rick Hill, R-Montana, continued the hearing.
UM police grabbed Mark and scuffled briefly with him against the classroom's projection screen. Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who was sitting at a nearby table waiting to testify, held open the door as the young man was hurriedly taken away.
Several times during the scuffle, Mark shouted at Chenoweth-Hage: "You are the greatest threat to the forest."
The audience, which numbered about 300 at the hearing's start, was quiet. Chenoweth-Hage stayed in her chair until Mark was out of the room. Then Racicot, who was attacked several years ago by an activist throwing bison intestines, came to her side and talked quietly, as did Hill.
Afterwards, she leaned into the microphone, announced a recess and left the room to clean the salmon off her clothes and hair. Hill remained in the lecture hall throughout the hourlong break, talking with reporters and the witnesses he had invited to the hearing.
"The people of Montana deserve the right to have a discussion about these issues," said Hill. "I am embarrassed, but also disgusted that the people of Montana could be denied the right to have this hearing. We have to be able to discuss our differences with civility."
Hill, who was sitting next to Chenoweth-Hage when she was attacked, apologized to the congresswoman when the session reconvened and appealed to the audience for good behavior.
Conservationists in the crowd also apologized to the congresswoman, who is known for her conservative views and clashes with both the Forest Service and environmentalists.
None knew Mark or if he represented any particular group or cause. He is not a student at UM, and does not have a telephone number listed either in Moscow or Missoula. A check of newspaper records showed that he was sentenced to 60 days in jail last January for blocking a forest road in Idaho County, Idaho, to protest a timber sale. A federal judge in Moscow also placed Mark on a year of "supervisory release."
Mike Bader, whose Alliance for the Wild Rockies joined in the prehearing protest rally, decried the salmon-throwing as "frightening and distasteful."
"It scared the heck out of me," Bader said. "This certainly has absolutely nothing to do with us. I condemn it. Who or what that was about, I cannot say."
"I am real disappointed," said Bob Ekey, The Wilderness Society's northern Rockies representative and an invited witness at the hearing. "That display was not representative of the environmental community. We are concerned about these issues and want to discuss them in a civil and respectful manner."
Members of the Montana Human Rights Network were the only activists to continue - verbally - jabbing at Chenoweth-Hage during the break, handing a statement to reporters calling the congresswoman and her husband "strident promoters of the anti-government rhetoric of the extreme right wing."
Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Wood Products Association, followed close behind, telling reporters that he wonders "if the Montana Human Rights Network wants to say something about the civility of this discourse."
And Chenoweth-Hage's press secretary promised that the hearing would continue. Said Elizabeth Soutter Schwarzer: "This is an act of intimidation in a democratic process. Helen came here to have a dialogue, and they wanted to throw food. She is not going to be intimidated from expressing her views. This is America."
Schwarzer said her boss intends to file federal charges against Mark as well, including assault against a federal employee and obstruction of federal process. "This guy has attempted to silence a member of Congress," she said. "The message is that she is not going to let this go. No way. He picked the wrong woman. She welcomes discussion and discourse and disagreement. But she is not going to put up with terrorist tactics."
The congresswoman did not comment on the attack during the hearing, and there were no more outbursts. In fact, by the time the hearing ended just before 3 p.m., there were only about 25 people in the audience.
"You have to realize that people have their own agendas and sometimes find unfortunate ways to express them," Chenoweth-Hage said after the session.
The attack, she said, "does not reflect on the fine reputation of the University of Montana or the state of Montana."
She smiled. "I would like to say that I find it amusing that they used salmon," she said. "I guess salmon must not be endangered anymore."
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